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TLC for saplings

Establishing trees on your acreage in the fall is a good investment, both for aesthetic reasons and more practical ones, such as lowering your energy bills in summer and winter. You can keep young trees strong and healthy through the winter and beyond by avoiding some common mistakes.

Want of water

Lack of water is the biggest threat to young trees. It takes a new tree up to three years to develop roots to make up for those lost in the transplanting process. During that time, trees are especially vulnerable to drought, which leads to branch dieback and stem damage.

To get water directly to the roots, where it's needed the most, make a doughnut-like depression a few -inches deep and 2 to 3 feet from the trunk so water will not run off. Not long ago, a dish-like depression extending around the tree was considered -ideal. But the doughnut works better because it prevents puddling around the trunk, where water could cause rot.

Water deeply -- as much as 5 gallons for a 3- to 4-foot tree -- during each week that there is less than 1 inch of rainfall. Mulching will help the tree retain the water and give it extra protection for winter. For younger and smaller trees, mulch a circle at least 2 feet in diameter around the base.

Failure to protect

Wrapping and staking are sometimes required by nurseries if their tree guarantee is to be honored. Wrapping the lower trunk with tree wrap or heavy paper will prevent sun scald until the canopy of leaves grows thick enough to shade the trunk. Wrapping also helps insulate the tree from the cold.

Staking was, until recently, a rule without exception. New research, however, has shown that some flex and sway is necessary for trees to develop strength and resilience -- although too much movement in the wind will keep the roots constantly under stress and prevent them from settling and spreading. So use the minimum staking necessary, perhaps none for small transplants, and take out stakes once they're no longer needed.

Girdling

Girdling can kill a tree quicker than any other type of injury because it can entirely cut off the flow of nutrients and water to the branches farther up the tree.

To avoid girdling, remove anything that could bind around the trunk. Run guy wires through pieces of hose. When possible, tie branches with soft string or pieces of nylon hose that will stretch or break before they bind.

As winter progresses, keep an eye on your young trees. Don't let the harsh weather keep you from providing necessary care.

Photograph: Lark Smothermon/Woolly Bugger Studios

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